“This is old-growth forest now. They say if you step off the trail, there’s no hope of ever going home”
We do it anyways.
A web of dark woods surrounds us. We step into it and are swallowed up by twilight. Thin poles of trees block our passage. Like hinds, we weave between them.
A cry from beyond. In a matter of moments, I have lost her. We are hunted by the Tuatha de Danaan, and their prey does not escape easily. All I can do is pray for my friend’s survival and carry on.
I run then. The gloomy twilit light becomes dark blue. I can hear Arawn’s hounds baying behind me. It is the call of death. The ankou draws near, and it is all I can do to keep moving.
Quick yellow eyes flash before me. I shriek, skidding into a sharp rock and tearing open my leg. Cursing my luck, I fall before him.
“Please. Make it quick,” I beg.
The stranger steps into the light. He looks on me with amusement. “I am not here to harm you.”
He has a face that would send poets to the maenads. Large amber eyes, a half-stag nose, and lips tilted in a smile of mystery. Thick dark hair spirals to his shoulders, whose tan skin undulates downwards into the body of a hunter’s. Thick velvet antlers crown his head, and below his waist are the long, vicious legs of a hind. He grins as I appraise him, offering a hand.
“I would never pick such easy quarry as you,” he reassures me. He helps me from the woods, into a clearing carpeted by herbs.
“That’s kind, Cernunnos,” I reply.
He pauses. “I have not heard that name in a while. So that’s who you think of me?”
I shrug. “Names all mean the same thing. That we just don’t know. It’s the oldest I’m aware of.”
He picks hyssop and crushes it in his hands. “Then it shall do.” He rubs it into my flesh until the pain disappears, then bandages my cut.
“Thank you. But the de Danaan still hunt me.”
Cernunnos smiles serenely. “I am far older than the most ancient of their kind. They are like fleas to me.” He flicks his ear nonchalantly, then stomps the ground. “In my childhood, there was no indoors, you know. No separation between nature and man. How strange it was you were raised in such a space. A room. Like a potted flower. No wonder so many humans wither and die.”
I walk beside him, pain gone. “But we have medicine now. We live more easily.”
He smiles. “I have no objection to that. Shall I show you medicines of old?”
I nod yes. He picks a yellowed bud. “Smell this. This is yarrow…”
And so I learn of herbs with the Lord of the Hunt. I never do quite return home, as my heart is half buried in the Dreaming. But that is a tale for another time, and the dawn has come, so I rise.